Petit Verdot: Innovation & cooperation in Bordeaux

Bordeaux is not the first place I look to for innovation in wine marketing. The region has strong links to the past, to say the least, and most of its stakeholders have at least some interest in maintaining the status quo. Encountering new product development on a recent trip to out-of-the-way commune Listrac-Médoc was thus quite a welcome and pleasant surprise.

I was intrigued to find that the regional winegrower’s cooperative, the Cave de Grand Listrac, has launched an unusual new wine, a single varietal Petit Verdot. It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it’s something new, and I think that’s worth celebrating – or at least investigating a little further.

Wine co-ops in Bordeaux

Winegrowers’ cooperatives (“co-ops”) became an important feature of Bordeaux wine production following the Great Depression. In the face of severe economic challenges, individuals grouped to form co-ops such as the Cave de Grand Listrac. Today, the Union des Caves de Médoc oversees seven co-ops in the Médoc region.

The best-known is probably La Rose Pauillac, whose eponymous flagship wine is a relatively affordable introduction to the Pauillac appellation, home to three of the Médoc’s five “first growths”, Châteaux Latour, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild.

These jointly-owned ventures enable growers to pool their resources – technical, financial and otherwise – to become greater than the sum of their parts. Some groups are making wine marketing a priority, too.

The Cave de Grand Listrac

petit verdot

A flagship with a flagship, Grand Listrac. Photo: cave-listrac-medoc.com

The Cave de Grand Listrac was formed in 1935, representing 25 individual growers. Today, it has around 40 producers, and it is responsible for around 25% of the total production within Listrac-Médoc. They also vinify some Haut-Médoc and Moulis-en-Médoc wines here, too, as well as red, white and pink Bordeaux in various formats.

The Listrac co-op produces and markets a range of Listrac-Médoc wines including château wines, tied to a particular property and owner, and branded wines whose fruit may come from different plots within the appellation and multiple owners.

Some of the château wines are Crus Bourgeois, including Châteaux Capdet and Vieux Moulin.

Its flagship branded wine is Grand Listrac. Its label, pictured above, quite literally bears a flagship. I’m not sure if there’s a pun intended there. Grand Listrac is relatively easy to find in Bordeaux and in my experience represents good value for money. It’s usually around €10 or less in stores.

It was another of their branded wines that caught my attention, however. As of the 2015 vintage, the Listrac co-op decided to do something a little atypical. Petit Verdot 2015 is a Listrac-Médoc made, as you might expect, from 100% Petit Verdot grapes.

Petit Verdot Listrac Médoc 2015

The 2015 Petit Verdot Listrac-Médoc is the first vintage of this particular cuvée, and just 3,000 bottles were produced. That is not much by most measures, particularly when you consider that the co-op’s overall production is well over a million bottles per year.

The wine retails at €18, from the co-op’s cellar door and online. From what I can see, this makes it the co-op’s most expensive wine and puts it firmly at the high end of the appellation itself. Only a handful of the region’s very top estates occupies this price bracket.

Understanding Petit Verdot

Most red Bordeaux wines are blends of two or more different grape varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot the most common components.

Petit Verdot is a decidedly less common composite part of Bordeaux wines. It can be problematic to grow, ripening very late and sometimes not well enough. When it fails to ripen, its wines are not very pleasant and not much use to anybody. At its best, Petit Verdot can make a solid contribution to the overall blend. Typically, it brings colour, spiciness and structure.

For the most part, Petit Verdot plays a minor role in the overall blend of Bordeaux wines. Those châteaux that choose to cultivate it usually do so to the order of a low single-figure percentage of their vineyard. Château Palmer has a pretty high proportion at around 6%, and nearby Château Angludet, home of the Sichel family, has nearly twice that.

Elsewhere, it’s grown in parts of Spain, Italy, the USA and Australia, among others. In all cases, it’s rare to find the grape playing more than a supporting role.

That begs an obvious question of the Cave de Grand Listrac, then.

Why produce a single varietal Petit Verdot in Bordeaux?

Listrac-Médoc

For a start, the 2015 Listrac-Médoc Petit Verdot exists because nature allowed it. The 2015 vintage in Bordeaux was favourable enough to allow the co-op’s holdings of Petit Verdot to ripen sufficiently. There’s more to it than that, though.

Jacques Tachou, Commercial Director at the co-op, was kind enough to give me some insight into the thought process behind the product’s development. My understanding is that there are three key drivers behind it:

1. Sharing knowledge

The wine springs from a desire to educate the consumer, about Bordeaux generally and Petit Verdot specifically. The co-op has stripped the Bordeaux blend down to its essential elements and has gone all in on perhaps its least understood component.

Of course, this is not a barrel sample or an experiment among trade professionals. Far from it, this is a consumer product and complete wine, in and of itself. Is it going to spark a revolution of Petit Verdot-led Bordeaux wines? Probably not, but it offers an insight of the co-op’s savoir-faire concerning an overlooked local grape variety.

This is a novel way of educating interested consumers about the art of blending Bordeaux wines.

2. Deconstructing Bordeaux norms

In marketing a varietal Petit Verdot, Jacques and his colleagues have deconstructed the Bordeaux blend. It’s a nice way for the consumer to taste something they otherwise wouldn’t, of course, though it also makes something of a statement.

This is a vehicle for the co-op to break the established codes of Bordeaux wine, if only on a 3,000-bottle-a-year scale. It’s not exactly Château Latour leaving en primeur, but I can appreciate the effort of doing something different all the same. Small as the gesture may be, it’s a gesture.

This is innovation on a local, co-operative scale. I don’t imagine it’s an isolated case, and I hope to see more of it.

3. New product development

The co-op’s existing portfolio is diverse, with a range of wines covering most local styles at varying, mainly accessible price points. You can get a string of different appellations, colours and formats, not to mention accessories.

Step into the cave itself, and you’ll see pallets of bag-in-box wine before anything else. Whatever your thoughts on bag-in-box wine, it’s usually quite cheap. There is a market for it, but it’s something of a commodity. Step past the pallets and further inside, and you’ll find the various branded and château wines, in suitably more discreet displays. This single varietal Petit Verdot is part of an effort to enrich the co-op’s range with higher-end wines.

It’s an ambitious direction for any wine producer, let alone a co-op. I was pleased to hear that there will be a 2016 bottling, too. I look forward to seeing what’s next.